A year ago, when college commencements were rendered impossible by the pandemic lockdown and we all switched to virtual ceremonies or tributes, we imagined we might be able to reschedule an in-person event by December 2020 at the latest. Instead, we were just part of the way into a full year of running our institutions with full COVID mitigations: masking, distancing, hybrid teaching, and frequent testing, isolation and quarantine.

Now, a year later, we see signs of hope with vaccinations rising and cases dropping, and we had clearance to run in-person ceremonies, albeit under tight restrictions. At Russell Sage College that meant ten outdoor ceremonies of 200 persons or fewer (seven commencements plus some specific ceremonies like doctoral hooding).

We learned what students cared most about in commencement: walking across the stage when their names were announced and having at least some family there in person. We found a way to include those elements, though it tested the patience and ingenuity of our graduation planning group, our facilities and communication staffs, our wellness staff, and so forth.

In the end, we had a series of delightful and meaningful ceremonies, animated by the same pride and excitement that fuels our regular ceremonies. Our staff worked incredibly hard, and the weather cooperated.

My task was to offer a few words of welcome and set the tone for our graduates who had just completed a very unusual year—with physical and emotional trials—and are facing an uncertain future.

Being a college president means giving a lot of ceremonial speeches, and I’ve learned to follow a few principles. 

  • Hit the key positive message clearly. Depending on the occasion, that is usually “welcome,” “thanks” or “congratulations.” Sometimes all three.
  • Avoid giving advice. This is SO tempting at graduation and is almost the required form, but I believe it is more important that graduates take time to feel pride in their considerable accomplishments rather than be subject to the usual blandishments about “learning from failure,” “saying yes to new experiences,” and “giving back.”
  • Provide some small piece of intellectual content: a relevant quotation, something from my academic field or contemporary news, a meaningful or surprising story. We are a college, after all.
  • Keep it brief.

I puzzled over this year’s offering as I “moved” from Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting. I thought back over the privations, struggles and oddities of this year in academe, and sometimes I just shook my head. At one point, I muttered to myself, “What a year this has been!” And that reminded me of a work that I had read—and actively disliked—in graduate school, John Dryden’s “Annus Mirabilis” about 1660, a year of plague and the Great Fire of London. The parallels struck me, especially Dryden’s strange optimism and belief that London would be rebuilt and would thrive.

That was enough to give me an angle to talk about what students had endured but also what they had accomplished. We are all part of something that will be a historical touchstone for better or worse, and I thought of our students ages hence telling stories about the great pandemic and how it set the stage for their lives because they accomplished something great in the face of it.

I look forward to a full gathering at the 2022 commencement. For now, I share what I told this year’s group of fire-tested graduates.

Commencement 2021 at Russell Sage College

Welcome Sage graduates, family and friends! What a year this has been!

I have two messages for you on this important day.

The first message is: congratulations! This is your day to celebrate a great achievement. Throughout your life, you will always be a Sage graduate. More importantly, you will always have the knowledge, skills and habits of mind that led to your success today and will fuel your future as you encounter a changing and unpredictable world.

Do not take your accomplishments for granted. It is a long road of achievements and obstacles overcome that leads to a college degree. Thank the faculty, friends and family who helped you along the way, and think of others you can lend a hand to in the future. But also take the time to be proud of what you have done. You deserve it.

And it is all the more remarkable that your achievement was completed against the backdrop of a global pandemic, a disruptive crisis that has upturned social and economic life. Each of you has had significant hardships to contend with. Some of you have been ill with COVID; others, very sadly, lost family members. Your perseverance and resilience in an extraordinary time should be another source of pride and strength.

What a year—indeed! As I thought of that simple exclamation — What a year this has been! — I was reminded of one of the works I had studied in grad school as an English Literature Ph.D. “Annus Mirabilis,” a long poem in 304 quatrains by 17th-century London poet, John Dryden. The title means miraculous year or year of wonders, and Dryden applied it to London in 1666. 

His meaning was not entirely clear, for the year, like our 2020 and 2021, did not seem wondrous at the time. England fought a brutal trade war with Holland, with deadly battles at sea. And, as with our 2020, London was in the grip of a great pandemic, the last explosion of the Black Plague. Tens of thousands died, and Londoners followed weekly death totals and observed quarantines just like we have. Some of the residents departed the city for the safer countryside.

And then, as plague deaths seemed to be peaking, a small house fire spread wildly through London and became the Great Fire of London, burning four-fifths of the city, and leaving thousands homeless.

But Dryden’s optimism was genuine. He took heart, for example, in the heroic actions of King Charles, who in fighting the flames of the Great Fire, used gunpowder to blast away several blocks of houses to create a fire break to stop the blaze. He believed that a greater London would arise from the ashes:

Methinks already from this chymic flame,
I see a city of more precious mold.
Rich as the town which gives the Indies name,
With silver pav’d , and all divine with gold.

And he turned out to be right. The King put Sir Christopher Wren in charge of rebuilding London. An astronomer and architect, Wren designed over fifty churches and laid out the streets that have become modern London. He designed and oversaw—from inception to completion—St. Paul’s Cathedral, its dome visible across London 350 years later. Inside that magnificent building is a Latin inscription to Christopher Wren: si monumentum requires circumspice. If you seek his monument, look around.”

And you may have heard the story of one of the people who fled London for the countryside in 1666: Isaac Newton, philosopher, scientist and mathematician. He later told the story of looking from his country retreat out upon an apple orchard and how he pondered whether the same force that moved the moon around the earth caused an apple to fall from a tree.

Over the course of our current pandemic, this story was circulated along the lines of “Newton developed the theory of gravity during a pandemic—what have you done?”

A similar story was told about an earlier run of the plague in London, sixty years earlier, in 1606, when Shakespeare retreated to the countryside and wrote King Lear (then, as now, the theaters were closed for the pandemic). Meanwhile, we have been baking sourdough bread.

Actually, these are more myths than truth. At least we know that both Shakespeare and Newton were incredibly accomplished and prolific in their non-plague years as well. Still, more than three centuries later, we still marvel at St. Paul’s, King Lear is still performed, and Newton’s calculations helped us put a man on the moon and a drone with a video camera on Mars.

I cite these examples of great accomplishments in the arts and sciences three centuries ago for a reason, a reason why I am optimistic about the future that awaits you graduates and that you will shape, as designers, scientists, writers, health workers, managers, lawyers, teachers and counselors.

Years from now, a grandchild or great niece or nephew will ask you: Were you old enough to have experienced the pandemic of 2020 and 2021? And you will have many stories to tell. And among them will be this: I graduated from college. I finished my graduate degree. And that, I tell you, is something. 

As with the great Christopher Wren, the future awaits you and it needs your energy, creativity, knowledge, skill and innovation catalyzed in your own annus mirabilis. A generation from now, people will look round to see your memorial, forged in the moment of our own year of wonders. I have one final message for you: Our world needs you.

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